Friday, October 17, 2008

Clean up politics - and corruption elsewhere will wither away

If democracy does not stop corruption, corruption will stop democracy. As soon as the interim constitution is adopted and an interim government formed, another kind of transition will commence that will last till the constituent assembly is elected. After that a new constitution will lead to a popularly elected government taking charge.

A period as fluid as this is fraught with challenges, but also affords opportunity to design a future Nepal and decide its direction. How the future constitution is designed and structured will determine whether corruption can be eliminated so it doesn't destroy democracy. Politicians and bureaucrats brand businessmen as smugglers and profiteers. Businessmen call them crooks. Mom and pop NGOs have expanded this triangle into a quadrangle of corruption in which everyone benefits.

A party spending Rs 10,000 a month to maintain a single district office has to spend more than Rs 9 million a year in recurring expenses just to have a presence in 75 districts. Then there are elections. People fight elections not just to become parliamentarians but to become ministers so they can recover the investment made to win elections. If a candidate and his party jointly spend a modest Rs 300,000 in a campaign, multiply that by 205 constituencies and the total is Rs 61.5 million. Where are the candidates and political parties going to get that kind of money?

The answer: the business community intent on cashing in later, bureaucrats hoping for lucrative postings and NGOs wanting looser regulation. Whoever finances the politician will recover the investment with interest by means fair or foul. Nearly all other forms of corruption stems from that at a political level.

Therefore, if politicos desist from corrupt practices, corruption by the other three arms of the quadrangle will whither away, if not be eliminated all together. The following four measures need to be incorporated into the interim constitution and the one that the constituent assembly will eventually promulgate. Political parties aren't transparent and financially accountable at present, so first it should be mandatory for all political parties to publish each year's audited financial statements within three months of the fiscal year end. Parties failing to do so should not be allowed to field candidates for elections. Donations to political parties, within a limit, should be admissible as expenses for tax purposes. And one could even consider state funding for parties so they don't have to depend on businesses.

Political parties lead pro-democracy movements, but have no democracy within themselves. This engenders nepotism and favoritism, especially with dominant castes and families. The wrong elements corner important party positions, bolstering corruption. The new constitution should therefore make inclusive internal democracy in parties mandatory.

The most radical suggestion is the formation of an apolitical cabinet. Currently, the judiciary is independent from both the executive and legislature. However, people from the legislature populate the cabinet. Only the head of government should be elected by popular vote. He then puts together a technocrat cabinet from outside parliament, vetted by parliamentary hearing. This would stop politicos fighting elections with the express purpose of becoming ministers to make money. This will also stop ministers from nursing their constituencies while neglecting the rest of the country. Parliamentarians will also be able to concentrate on their legislative functions and monitoring the cabinet's work without being involved in the ministerial rat race.

Finally, the Auditor General's Office requires more teeth to transform it from being a mere watchdog into an organization able to stem corruption at its root by adding a treasury function. Parallels exist in India and the United States, where these bodies are empowered to stop disbursement to errant organizations. Such an institution is called the Comptroller General's Office in India and General Accounting Office in the US. Corruption will decrease substantially when these two policy changes and two institutional modifications are incorporated in the new constitution. Corrupt people may then be ostracized, and corruption treated with abhorrence, as it should be.

(Published as a guest column in Nepali Times of 11 - 17 Aug 2006, issue #310.)

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